The New York Giants finally have some confidence. Running through the NFC playoffs as a wild card and stunning the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLII will do that.
So even without two big-name pass rushers from a year ago - Michael Strahan retired to the television booth, and Osi Umenyiora suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason - the Giants roll into Thursday’s season opener against the visiting Washington Redskins with enough confidence to fill Giants Stadium.
“We’ve been in the playoffs three years in a row, won the division once and won the Super Bowl, so this team knows what it’s like to play in big-time games,” middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said.
That experience showed at the end of last season. The Giants had not won a playoff game since 2000 and fell in the wild card round the previous two seasons but knocked off Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay before the monumental upset of previously undefeated New England in the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.
“There’s definitely a feeling of [confidence],” coach Tom Coughlin said. “We’ve worked hard to make sure that the mental approach is exactly the same. I don’t think any of our guys are stuck in hindsight. We’re constantly pounding on the now, and I think that message has been well received. We do have some people that have displayed mental toughness, perseverance. We’ve handled some things and handled them well.”
No one more so than quarterback Eli Manning, who turned an average regular season (23 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and a 73.9 passer rating) into a Hall of Fame postseason. In the four wins, he passed for six touchdowns and one interception (with a 95.7 passer rating), and he picked up a Super Bowl MVP award.
“The quality of his play, his play under pressure, his taking care of the ball, all of those things not only gave the rest of the team confidence, but also the play of everyone around Eli gave him confidence because he doesn’t have to make every play,” Coughlin said.
It certainly helps Manning that the three-headed backfield of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and postseason surprise Ahmad Bradshaw returns, along with a solid line and veteran receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer.
“You can tell they’re a veteran team,” Redskins coach Jim Zorn said. “They do things at a very high rate suddenly at the snap of the ball. On defense, they’re relentless. They’re showing that they’re a team to be dealt with.”
Losing the 22 sacks of Umenyiora and Strahan hasn’t fazed Pierce. In their place, Justin Tuck and former linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka will line up at the two defensive end spots. Tuck finished second on the team behind Umenyiora with 10 sacks last season.
“There’s a sense of calmness,” said Pierce, a former Redskins linebacker. “We had a lot of fuss going on early in the season [a year ago], especially Week 1. We didn’t know if the coach was going to get fired. We didn’t know if Strahan was going to be back. We had a new defensive coordinator [Steve Spagnuolo]. We had a lot of miscommunications, misalignments, assignment errors in the first two or three games. This year, we shouldn’t have those problems. I don’t that see that much of a dropoff.”
However, the title run hasn’t earned the team a lot of respect outside the locker room. Most prognosticators aren’t picking the Giants to win the NFC East, much less the conference. Some have New York slotted behind the Cowboys and Eagles.
“We have a team that still feels we have something to prove,” Manning said.
Pierce said the Super Bowl’s effects could end by 10 p.m. Thursday.
“If we go out here and [lay] an egg in the first game of this season, it’s not going to be nothing except something to look back on,” Pierce said. “We’re worried about the 2008 season, trying to get another ring. But if you’re satisfied with one, shame on you because you play this game every year to win the championship. You want to win as many as possible.”
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